This is part of Sly as Fox, a short series about the perils of underestimating Fox News in 2024.

At the beginning of April, on his namesake prime-time Fox News program, Jesse Watters brought his viewers some alarming information. “We have a new hoax,” Watters announced, a message that was doubly reinforced by no fewer than two descriptive on-screen graphics. (One of these graphics, reading “NEW HOAX,” was rendered in a melty red horror-movie typeface.) “The bloodbath hoax didn’t work out too well for Democrats,” Watters continued, without bothering to explain what the “bloodbath hoax” was. “It was debunked in five minutes. Today the media’s out with a freshie: the animal hoax.”

The “animal hoax,” in Watters’ telling, was yet another misbegotten liberal-media ploy to disparage Donald Trump. It had been disseminated by CNN anchor Wolf Blitzer, who had devoted a recent segment to a Trump campaign speech in which the presumptive GOP presidential candidate had ostensibly referred to illegal migrants as “animals.” But according to Watters, CNN had selectively edited the tape to conceal the fact that, far from applying the term to all migrants, Trump had actually been referring to one specific migrant: the Venezuelan man charged with killing nursing student Laken Riley. “Hack job!” said Watters, with the confidence of a frequent practitioner.

Was it, though? I watched Trump’s full, unedited speech, delivered to a Grand Rapids, Michigan, audience in front of a living backdrop of uniformed sheriffs. In it, he noted that Riley had been “barbarically murdered by an illegal alien animal. The Democrats say, ‘Please don’t call them animals. They’re humans.’ I say, ‘No, they’re not humans. They’re not humans. They’re animals.’ Nancy Pelosi told me that, she said, ‘Please don’t use the word animals, sir, when you’re talking about these people.’ I said, ‘I’ll use the word animal, ’cause that’s what they are.’ ”

To me, Trump’s use of the plural animals and they—along with his invocation of an alleged conversation he presumably had with Pelosi before Riley was killed—certainly implies that he was referring to a group of people, as opposed to just one guy. At most, I might say that the matter is open to interpretation. But then again, I am not Jesse Watters. “Migrant crime’s real. The animal hoax? Fake,” Watters said in summation, as his face settled into the resting smirk of the bulletproof moron.

On any given weeknight on Fox News, at any given moment on the two programs he hosts—The Five, a panel show that airs at 5, and Jesse Watters Primetime, his solo joint, which airs at 8—the odds are pretty good that Watters is smirking, or sneering, or chuckling, or otherwise evincing censorious glee about the shameful doings of hoaxers, weirdos, migrants, protesters, media elitists, loony liberals, and other such partisan straw men. On The Five, Watters plays the nominal ringmaster, smugly opining from the center seat as he loosely guides the panel through breezy discussions of the day’s top stories in conservative triggerdom. On Jesse Watters Primetime, the host’s glib punditry and C-students-run-the-world charisma take the spotlight; in his nightly opening monologue and the show’s subsequent interview segments, Watters seeks less to persuade than to jeer the liberal malefactors whose alleged misdeeds he is lazily exposing. “A night of anarchy on the West Coast, as ‘kaffiyeh antifa’ got their hands on more weapons than Zelensky” was his derisive, and confusing, intro to a recent segment on the Gaza protests at UCLA. Kaffiyeh antifa. Got ’em, Jesse!

Of late, Watters has been turning his oafish bemusement to Donald Trump’s in-progress New York criminal trial—and the jurors charged with determining Trump’s fate. In a mid-April episode of The Five, after praising Trump for holding a photo-op at a New York bodega and complimenting the ex-president’s poise while facing dozens of felony criminal charges in multiple jurisdictions, Watters asserted, “They are trying to rig this jury. They are catching undercover liberal activists lying to the judge.” (“They” were doing no such thing, of course—but the emptiness of Watters’ accusation didn’t stop Trump from passing along an embellished version of it on his Truth Social account soon thereafter. This “very troubling” post later became one of the key pieces of evidence offered by prosecutors in Trump’s first contempt-of-court hearing, in late April.)

Endlessly bashing and belittling anyone to the left of Jim Jordan is, of course, the Fox News formula more generally, and every prominent opinion host on the network interprets this brief in a slightly different way. Sean Hannity relies on choleric theorizing; Laura Ingraham deploys smart-girl sarcasm; Greg Gutfeld tosses off curdled libertarian open mic riffs; the Fox & Friends hosts (Steve Doocy occasionally excepted these days) give their early-rising viewers a cheery cryptofascist kaffeeklatsch.

Watters isn’t as angry as Hannity or as smart as Ingraham; his riffs aren’t as funny as Gutfeld’s, and he’s nowhere near as chipper as Fox News’ morning crew. His immediate predecessor in the 8 p.m. weeknight slot, Tucker Carlson, spun baroque ethnonationalist theories while fluffing dictatorial strongmen—but Watters is hardly articulate, imaginative, or ambitious enough to follow in Carlson’s jackbooted footsteps. Instead, Watters relies on low-effort mockery and lazy analysis, delivered in a mellow tone, often paired with a mirthless laugh. It is the mean-spirited snort of the frat brother when he spies a man with long hair; the smarmy chuckle of the righteous prick, intent on mocking, rather than forgiving, all those who trespass against him—even and especially if those trespasses are purely imaginary ones.

If I were Watters, I suppose I’d be chuckling too. Since joining Fox News as a production assistant in 2001, the 45-year-old Watters has climbed to the top of the network’s talent ladder. If there is anything at all remarkable about Watters, it is the way he has somehow become the most popular man on America’s most popular cable network. It’s my contention that he has achieved this not despite his profound mediocrity but because of it. Like a restaurant that you keep returning to, despite its subpar food, because you “like the vibe,” Watters caters to an audience that will swallow pretty much anything as long as it’s served with the requisite flair. Originality is not actually part of his job description—after all, a new chef who tries to fiddle with the menu can alienate longtime diners—and, indeed, originality in punditry can come back to bite those commentators who do not realize until too late that they were trying too hard.

Have you ever bought a new “smart” appliance that’s proved to be more trouble than it’s worth? After struggling with the thing for a while, you might decide to just pack it in and go back to the old, dumb, reliable model. This familiar situation basically describes the recent history of Fox News’ marquee 8 p.m. weeknight time slot. From 1996 to 2016, this time slot was filled by Bill O’Reilly, an ex–Inside Edition host whose plain-spoken right-wing bombast was, in retrospect, almost comforting in its smug laziness. O’Reilly preached a meat-and-potatoes New York Post conservatism that rejected weirdos and liberals (usually presented as one and the same), valued straight talk and Judeo-Christian aesthetics, presumed that Hollywood was full of perverts and the mainstream media was full of liars, and conflated xenophobia with security and bigotry with honesty.

Watters first gained notice as a producer on O’Reilly’s program, when he was occasionally charged with conducting ambush interviews out in the field, often of people who had displeased O’Reilly by prudently declining his offers to appear on his terrible show. From there, O’Reilly began to entrust Watters with additional “funny” segments, which ran under the rubric of “Watters’ World.” In 2016 Watters was forced to apologize when one of these segments, which had been filmed in New York’s Chinatown, quickly defaulted to hacky ethnic stereotyping. (“It’s gentle fun,” O’Reilly said in defense of the segment.) Then, not long thereafter, O’Reilly was swept away on a tide of lawsuits and sexual harassment charges, and Fox News decided to go in a different direction with its 8 p.m. hour.

You will notice that Fox News does not make a habit of poaching existing conservative media stars. The network isn’t going out of its way to sign someone like Ben Shapiro, for instance, a guy who has made his own name and commands his own audience outside Fox News. These sorts of people are fundamentally ungovernable, since they have made their own way and do not owe their careers to Fox News. Fox prefers to create its own stars, to cast people who wouldn’t have prominent careers were it not for the network, people who can be counted on to stay loyal and do what they’re told.

When he took over the 8 p.m. time slot in 2017, cable-news retread Tucker Carlson very much fit into that mold. Carlson’s star had dimmed since his stint on Crossfire in the 2000s, and before Fox promoted him back to prime time he had been exiled as a weekend host of Fox & Friends. Carlson was surely aware that assuming O’Reilly’s time slot was likely his last chance to resuscitate his television career. But Carlson wasn’t made in O’Reilly’s mold, and he apparently didn’t want to just coast along and continue his predecessor’s adventures in careless tabloid populism. Instead, Carlson fully embraced weird alt-right online populism—an entirely different and ultimately more troubling thing.

Taking his cues from Trumpian political aesthetics, Carlson embraced Jan. 6 trutherism, and European strongmen, and “great replacement” theorizing. Although Carlson definitely found an audience for his weird rhetorical obsessions, his show conceptually outperformed his colleagues in a way that I can only surmise made Fox bigwigs uneasy. All that Fox needed out of Tucker Carlson Tonight was for its host to shout about fake news for an hour each evening while occasionally interviewing Lara Trump; the network did not need Carlson to go to Hungary to chat with Viktor Orbán. Carlson’s prominence, combined with his unique line of punditry, caused the anchor to see himself as bigger than the network. This hubris meant that he could not be counted on to maintain editorial discipline, which presented a problem for Fox at a time when it was reeling from a historically expensive libel suit that had come about because of editorial laxity, while trying to do its subtle best to prevent Donald Trump from attaining the 2024 GOP presidential nomination.

So Fox News abruptly fired Carlson last April, not long after it settled the aforementioned libel lawsuit brought against it by Dominion Voting Systems. After casting around awhile for his replacement, the network ultimately decided that it had had enough of smart appliances and preferred to revert to an old, dumb model that might not have a bunch of novel new features but could be relied upon to just do its job. And this is how Jesse Watters came to host the network’s most prominent prime-time program.

I will say this for Watters, whose work I have been watching on Fox News for a very long time now: He started from the bottom and climbed the ladder to the top, and I suppose there is something admirable about that, even if merit clearly had very little to do with his ascent. Watters is just a guy—a smug, soft guy who is content to toe the party line and settle into the lazy reactionary populism that is really all that the job requires. He does so with an air of entitled smarm, as if Goofus had disguised himself as Gallant and turned to inept virtue signaling to complete the ruse. He is resoundingly average, doesn’t seem to think too hard about his biases or his opinions, never bothers to plug the logical holes in his weak arguments, and blithely passes along a steady stream of inept liberal hoaxes to a viewership that doesn’t actually care whether those hoaxes are true.

A week after presenting the “animal hoax,” atop a chyron reading “The Media Is Trying to Stir Things Up,” Watters was smirking about another topic. “The media knows which way the wind’s blowing, so they’re trying to stir things up. The George Floyd death and the riots that followed energized the base and kept the Black vote in the Democrat column,” Watters said. “And now the media’s trying to run it back. But we caught them.” On Jesse Watters Primetime, they always do.

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